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Face masks: A nod to safety, and even fashion

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Ariel Harrison, the seamstress at la boheme, holds up some of the face masks she makes and sells at the Canyon Road clothing boutique. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

They have become a pandemic punctuation point. Wearing them has brought uniformity, caused some kerfuffles – and, in some places, fines – for not wearing them.

But it has become clear that cloth face masks are not going away any time soon.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends reserving the N-95 respirator masks for health care workers, it calls for “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission,” according to its website.

Locally, the public dons them for store trips; grocery store workers and delivery drivers wear them; and, now, the governor has made them mandatory for employees at all restaurants and essential businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Businesses are encouraged to post signs urging customers to wear masks and have the discretion to require them, the governor said.

In Latin America, they have become a fashion statement and sometimes make a political point. This week, in Lithuania’s World Heritage capital Vilnius, “Mask Fashion Week” featured 21 billboards depicting men, women and children wearing masks, which are required outdoor wear for all Lithuanians.

They can be homemade, fashioned from bandanas or, in the case of Canyon Road store la boheme, commercially produced.

The store, which specializes in women’s clothing, textiles, jewelry and some folk art, began making face masks in February, said owner Margaret Beattie.

Seamstress Ariel Harrison started experimenting with designs that now cover the front door window of the shop.

“Based on designs that she (Harrison) found online, she came up with her own design and has tweaked it,” said Beattie.

Initially, scrap material from clothing produced in the store was used, but the masks are now being made from whole fabric.

Elastic is used to attach the masks to the user, but it’s “super hard to find right now because of the overwhelming mask-making going on,” said Harrison.

Using scrap material for masks has its own rewards, according to Beattie. “Scraps are one of the biggest polluters of the planet from clothing production,” she said.

For seamstress Harrison, a former wedding cake designer, the transition from flour to flower-motif masks had its genesis in personal ties.

When the coronavirus pandemic started, Harrison had a friend working in a grocery store and “because I am a seamstress and I saw people were making masks … I had this connection to someone who really needed one,” she said. “That is how I broached the subject for myself of how to get involved.”

Harrison also has a friend making and sending homemade masks to the Navajo Nation, so she, with the help of her teenage children, has made about 100 masks for the reservation and delivered 55 so far.

“I’m trying as much as possible, for every one I sell, I donate one,” said Harrison.

Beattie said that 5% of the store mask sales revenue is donated to the Youth Shelters and Family Services organization in Santa Fe.

Some might consider the $32 price point on the high side, but Beattie points out that she pays Harrison a living wage and that the masks are made from high-quality, 100% organic cotton.

“They are all made one at a time,” she said. “And I’m a business, I am trying to stay alive.”

Beattie said she tells prospective customers that less expensive mask options are out there.

Beattie estimates that sales number about 50 so far.

The face masks Ariel Harrison makes include a pocket in which a filter or extra layer of protection can be placed. ( Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The mask patterns are in mostly floral and paisley, and have an opening if a customer wants to add a third layer.

“The main thing is just that there is that opening so if somebody wants more protection than two layers of cotton they have the ability to add that,” said Harrison.

Since a mask occupies “a fair amount of real estate on your face,” states the Vogue magazine website, “it’s not surprising that people are looking for aesthetically pleasing ones.”

Beattie and Harrison want their product to bring protection and joy. “We are hoping they make people happy to put on a mask,” Harrison said of her handiwork.